Penn Museum to relocate skull collection of enslaved people

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Penn Museum to relocate skull collection of enslaved people
This file photo shows visitors in the Egyptian section of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia. Mark Makela/The New York Times.

by Johnny Diaz

PHILADELPHIA (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- A Philadelphia museum of archaeology and anthropology will move part of its collection of about 1,300 skulls, including those of enslaved people, to storage this month after students called for it to give the bones to descendants.

The Penn Museum at the University of Pennsylvania announced on its website last week that it would relocate part of the collection to storage by the end of July.

The collection of skulls was amassed by Samuel George Morton, a 19th-century physician who held “broadly white supremacist” views, the museum said. It added that his “infamous research,” although criticized by contemporary scholars and modern scientists, had contributed to long-standing racist beliefs.

Jill DiSanto, a spokeswoman for the museum, said Monday that the collection was not on display in any galleries but had been kept in a private classroom.

The museum also said that it was working toward “repatriation or reburial of the crania of enslaved individuals” from the collection. Last year, a group of students at the university found that the collection included 53 crania of enslaved people from Havana and two crania of people who had been enslaved in the United States.

“Given that not much is known about these individuals other than that they came to Morton from Cuba, we are committed to working through this important process with heritage community stakeholders in an ethical and respectful manner,” the museum said.

DiSanto said that as the museum tries to repatriate or rebury the 53 crania, “the rest of the collection will still be accessible for research.”

The museum, which has been closed since March because of the coronavirus pandemic, plans to reopen to the public Tuesday.

Since presenting their findings last year, students have called for the skulls to be returned to Cuba and reburied. Those calls have grown in recent weeks, as nationwide protests against racism and police violence have led to changes at institutions including museums, businesses and professional sports.

“The Penn Museum has no right or reason to keep human remains that bolstered racist science in its basement,” a rising sophomore, Gabriela Portillo Alvarado, wrote last month in an opinion article in The Daily Pennsylvanian, the student paper. “These people belong with their descendants. They belong in their homelands.”

Alvarado, 18, said in an email that the museum “should be working to repatriate the entire collection” and not only the crania that fall under federal law governing certain Native American remains.

“I see this as a basic question of consent,” she said. “We all have the right to decide where we rest when we die, and many chose places far away from a predominantly white institution like Penn, before being stolen from their family and their homelands.”

On its website, the museum acknowledged Morton’s influence on racist thought, describing how his work measuring skulls — although it was faulted as shoddy and arbitrary by scholars like Charles Darwin — was “taken as proof” of European superiority by other contemporaries.

The museum acquired the collection in 1966 and said on its website that it “is an exceptional historic resource, which sheds light on issues including trans-Atlantic slavery, race supremacist ideology, the removal of Native Americans from the East Coast” and other issues.

In another section of its website, the museum, which was founded in 1887, said: “We recognize that this museum was built on colonialism and racist narratives. We are working to change these narratives and the institutional biases that accompany them.”

The museum added, “Racism has no place in our museum.”

Many other institutions have made similar changes in recent months, in response to the protests that began after the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. Statues or monuments portraying Confederate leaders and other historical figures have been marked with graffiti, torn from their bases by protesters or removed by city leaders. Businesses like Quaker Oats have changed the branding of some products over racist imagery. And last week, the NFL team of Washington, D.C., announced it was retiring its nearly 90-year-old name and would decide on a new one.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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